Reclaiming my Catholic Jesuit Heritage

I recently published an essay reflecting on our immediate political crisis and realize that I must answer my concluding question:

The Beloved Community, like the City of God, is a place to be built not a place to be found, acquired through faith, not certainty. It is an ideal, not a fact. Or perhaps it is a “not-yet” fact discoverable in our desire, hope, and action for it. It reveals itself in here-and-now acts of love of neighbors, strangers, and even enemies. Can you think of someone else who lived and taught this?

To answer this question, I reclaim my Catholic and Jesuit heritage which shapes my perspective, imagination, and language in coming to terms with others in shaping our common world.

I am no longer formally linked to the Roman Catholic Church and especially its hierarchy. When we want to celebrate with others our sense of the sacred, my partner and I generally attend a Unitarian Universalist church. Nevertheless, I can never renounce my Catholicity.

Born and bred a Catholic, I went to an elementary school in a parish and then a high school run by members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Whether called or pushed, I entered a Jesuit Novitiate and recited vows as a Jesuit scholastic pursuing a liberal education in arts and sciences, philosophy and theology. I taught at Jesuit high schools and universities and practiced the social justice teaching of the Church though community organizing. Even though I am no longer a formal member of the Jesuit Order (that does not allow for marriage), I still consider myself a “companion of Jesus” as all Jesuits aspire to be.

In my Jesuit studies, I guzzled classical, modern, and contemporary literature, music, arts, and science where I learned the limitations, opportunities, and glories of being human and our capacities for good and evil. I imbibed the history and methodology of science, the new science with its theories of relativity, probability, indeterminacy in the origins and development of the universe, in biological evolution and genetics, and in neuroscience including the brain and the origin of mind.

After all this guzzling and imbibing, I got drunk on classical and contemporary philosophy. Philosophy reflects on the human activities in language, art, religion, and science, both as a way of living and as a way of knowing our world. I discovered the role of imagination and symbolization in all our knowing of others and all things in the world. I learned how both mind and environment contribute in the pursuit of truth. Accepting the finding that humans live and know their world through symbols, and that all language is analogy and metaphor, I rejected the possibility of absolute truth and certainty. Following the scientific rule of parsimony or Occam’s Razor, I abandoned the belief in supernatural or metaphysical entities even though I admit with Hamlet that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

In my theological studies at the Jesuit School of Theology and as a Jesuit at the University of Chicago Divinity School, I dived more deeply into religion learning to distinguish the experience of our transcending consciousness from its many and developing expressions. In other words, I discovered the difference between faith as openness to and wonder about the Other beyond the beliefs as contained in rituals, dogmas, organization, rules, and sacred writings. My overriding theological insight is the primacy of faith over and beyond belief. This corresponds to my overriding philosophical insight which I articulate in many ways: the primacy of the speaking act over spoken words, scientific method over scientific theory, existence over essence, transcendence over transcendents, truth in process over truths as frozen chunks in time.

I must be quick to add that this insight permits me to accept and learn from other, even contrary, beliefs and formulations from my brothers and sisters with whom I converse — in theology, science, and politics. It pushes me to attend to the intentionality of the persons speaking or acting from their own perspectives and backgrounds beyond their formulations, beliefs, and proposals. It pushes me to bodily inter-act, listen, and actually try on the others speaking act — his or her being in and to the world — and to experiment how we might fit our worlds together.

I find myself continually translating the language of my friends when they speak of God as a divine daddy in the sky telling us what to do, or of supernatural entities like devils and angels, or places like heaven and hell, or souls that leave the body, or divine plans and revelations.

Because I understand the difference of faith as wonder-filled openness from all its expressions emerging in communication with others in particular space-times and because I understand the symbolic character of all human expression, I am able to read the scriptures, sing the hymns, and recite the creeds of my own religion honestly, even though I do not hold them literally in their archaic language. And yet I am able to appreciate and critique the expressions in all cultural religious and ethnic traditions even when I do not approve of their sometimes violent, sexist, scientifically, and politically incorrect language.

Nevertheless, my Jesuit education and commitment leads me to reject literalism, fundamentalism, absolutism, clericalism, and infallibility in all religion including Catholicism. I also reject fundamentalism in economics with its idols of the free market. I reject so-called originalist legal interpretations and ethical and political dogma. In my teaching, conferences, papers on “new theology,” and in my community organizing and political action, I criticized revolutionaries of the left, reactionaries of the right, and intransigent centrists for their unexamined “true beliefs” that hold us back from new syntheses.

The main way that Jesuits become companions or associates of Jesus is by taking on his life-style, his intentionality, his persona; that is, by “putting on his character” through imitation as St Paul of Tarsus counselled in his early letters to new Jesus communities. Putting on another person is explained by neuroscience and the process of empathy and role theory in social psychology. These disciplines demonstrate that the person is not an indelible, fixed ego core — like a metal ball bearing or glass marble agate at the center of the psyche, but a dynamic embodied flexible growing relationship to other persons and things in the world. Nor is the person just a mask of a dramatic character or role (as its Greek and Latin roots would indicate) or a superficial persona over the true self (as Jungians and New Agers might teach). The person is a process of integrating roles and personas into a vibrant unity of character. Or what we often label “soul,” not separate from but arising within body.

So I understand how a person can live after death in those who put on the character of that person. I see how a person is resurrected by others who have entered into relationship with that person and adopted that person’s way of being in the world. I can accept an ancestor’s presence in the community remembering and imitating that person, say, in the breaking of the bread at a meal. It’s not hocus pocus. It’s real to those who have the faith to understand.

The act of faith in Jesus by his disciples who take on the Jesus way of being in the world anoint (“christen”) and re-present Jesus in and to the world without making him or his soul some fixed supernatural entity.

In the Jesuit spiritual exercises taught by Ignatius of Loyola, Jesuits use their imagination to re-create the Jesus life-style and character. They do this by meditating on the accounts of Jesus in the early reports of Jesus as found in the New Testament and in other accounts of Jesus not found in the Bible. (We know of at least 20 other “gospels.”) They try to understand who Jesus most probably was, what he probably said and did, and what his persona most probably is in the light of historical and cultural research. They reflect on the personality and mission of others in the past and present, whether Christian or not, who seem best to re-present the style, attitude, behavior, and mission of the Jesus persona. They reflect on their own consciousness in thinking and acting in accordance with their image of Jesus.

Therefore, no supprise, the person to whom I was referring as the answer to my above question is, of course, Jesus of Nazareth. I refer to the Jesus before Christianity and the Roman captivity. This is not the Jesus as a god like Caesar or as God like Yahweh, but a human being who lived in Palestine around two-thousand years ago. The person to whom I refer is also the Jesus after Christianity and the American captivity who lives on in all who have taken on his mission. It’s the style of life, character, or persona, the real bloke as much as I can paint him using the icons of my own place and time.

When Christians ask “what would Jesus do” when confronting a decision in a particular situation, they are asking the right question, but not necessarily presenting the right answer if they simply take that answer from the writings and rulings of experts from other situations — including the answers which Jesus is said to have given. They need to go beyond the ånswers to the questions, beyond the rules articulated for other people in other situations. They need to wrestle not with the rules and answers given but with their incorporation of the Jesus attitude and style now.

Presently, I hesitate to call myself Christian because the term has been appropriated by many whom I judge are not incorporating the Jesus attitude and style. And I do not want to associate with them as they use the old rules and answers rather than the historical process of wondering together. As St Paul has said: these professional pretenders accept the way of the law that keeps them in control rather the way of freedom that distributes power of spirit to all. They accept the rules of the organization or of the authorities of that organization, rather than the way of their conscience — a consciousness informed by the style, attitude, and way of Jesus and others who demonstrated that style of living and acting in the world.

There are so many images of Jesus to meditate as we seek to understand and imitate his persona and character through and yet surpassing the limited images and idioms of ancient and even modern worldviews as we travel together on a journey to infinity.

There is the simple Galilean Jew, peasant wood worker, who helped others in his underclass appreciate their dignity and worthiness despite their low rung in the social order of Roman dominated Judea. (Mark)

There is the social reformer and worker of miracles, actions that contradict the expected trends of those who have been despised and oppressed by the rich and famous. (Luke)

There is the philosopher in the likes of Zeno, Pythagoras, and the Cynics whose lifestyle and message were similar to that of this wandering Jew. (Crossan)

There’s the rabbi and prophet in the Hebrew tradition, raised by the Father to be His son (Matthew).

There is the transcending one who mindful of his own spirit reaching to infinity recalls within others the consciousness of the not-yet Future Truth and Love that beckons to us all. (John)

There is the assembler of women from the ranks of the oppressed to become leaders of a movement for liberating those of lesser social status including children. (Reuther).

There is the heretic persecuted by the Grand Inquisitor for acts and messages of freedom rejected by the authorities of church and state. (Dostoyevsky)

There is the Zealot or Nazarene (Reza Aslan), the liberator (Gustavo Gutiérrez), whose reported words and death signal his threat and alternative to the violence of the existing order.

There is the great-souled one, Mahatma, the person for others who uses totally non-violent words and actions to reveal the violence of the present social order and to make possible a public in which power belongs to the people in concert (Gandhi).

There is the preacher and practicer of love of neighbor and enemy responding directly to human need across the barriers of class, race, condition, and country. (Thurman).

There is the organizer of others, those not yet included in the bounty of the earth and the capacity for happiness, showing a way towards Beloved Community in which peace and love overcome force and hate. (MLK)

Many other fanciful stories of Jesus and “Christ-like” figures are wonderfilled sources for rounding out our imagination. One contemporary story imagines Jesus starting out as a grifter who comes to believe his own preaching (Nick Tosche, Under Tiberius). Anther explores the sexuality of Jesus and his choice of the cross over a normal life (The Last Temptation of Christ). Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited linking the exploited Jew to the American blacks or refugees is closest to my sense of the Jesus person today.

The growing story of the Jesus person “anointed to preach liberty to the captives” and “putting down the mighty from their seats,” leads to a city of freedom and community of love beyond Christianity. The early companions of Jesus called this not-yet state the second coming of Christ when the whole world is christened into the Jesus person. But this person, this soul, this character, this intentionality belongs to no age, no name, no country, no creed. Its capacity is found within everybody who can open her/himself to other bodies to resist the hate and fear of domination and to co-create the beloved community.

My own heritage urges me to go beyond it and join my story with her story and his story and your story into the human and universal neverending story.

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